Amid a maze of car repair shops in Haiti’s gritty capital, Andre Eugene pitches a shredded tire he found atop a towering sculpture he built out of rusty engine parts, bed springs and other cast-off junk.
“This is what I do — I work with the garbage of the world,” says Eugene, assessing the largest sculpture displayed at the entrance of his studio and open-air museum off a crumbling street cutting through some of Port-au-Prince’s poorest neighbourhoods.
The Haitian sculptor is a founding member of Atis Rezistans, a shifting collective of artists who recycle whatever useful scraps they can find to give a raw, physical shape to the spiritual world of Voodoo, or Vodou as the religion is known by Haitians, and weigh in on the country’s chronic political and economic troubles.
While Haiti’s established galleries were slow to warm to the scrap sculptors of the capital’simpoverished Grand Rue neighbourhood, bustling with furniture-makers and other craftsmen, the artisans working with recycled materials have been embraced by a number of international art connoisseurs and academics. Over the last decade, the work of Atis Rezistans has been exhibited in cities such as Paris, London, and Los Angeles. There are sculptures included in the permanent collections of museums, including the Frost Art Museum, Miami.
“Atis Rezistans takes an old practice in new directions, expanding the range of materials used and offering stunning new meanings for objects found in everyday life,” said Marcus Rediker, a collector of Haitian art and a distinguished professor of Atlantic history at the University of Pittsburgh.
The materials that form the sharp-edged sculptures include automotive fragments, carved wood pieces, broken TVs, discarded toys and the like. Many of their artworks are a nod to Baron Samedi, the Vodou god of the dead, and his rambunctious offspring, Gede. Others offer a kaleidoscope of jarring images out of a Mad Max movie — sculptures of faces with spikes; masked figures; broken baby dolls fused with computer motherboards. But it’s not all darkness. There’s plenty of evidence of playfulness and irreverent theatricality, such as a skull-topped figure with a stethoscope and snake sculptures with scales of inlaid bottle caps.
Perhaps their most acclaimed collaborative creation has been a mash-up of high art-meets-developing world called the “Ghetto Biennale.” Every two years, international artists come to the Grand Rue neighbourhood in a kind of cross-cultural festival that leaves the door open for just about anything.
The Ghetto Biennale takes a form developed for European art fairs and radically subverts it, according to Anthony Bogues, a Brown University professor who co-curated a 2011 exhibition of Haitian art at the Providence, Rhode Island school.
“Art for them is not about the elite but rather recognising that art is a language in which Haiti speaks to itself and the world,” Bogues said of Atis Rezistans.
Collaborations with overseas artists who come to Haiti have given younger members of the collective chances to tap into art networks across the globe, while international artists are stimulated by the Haitian group’s creative process.